Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir with Paul Spicer @ City of Sounds

Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir has built a reputation as an outstanding chamber choir. They have recorded a CD annually for the last six years, eliciting high praise in the national press. On Friday 17 June, Paul Spicer leads the choir in a performance of music by John Joubert.

We spoke to Paul to find out more…

Who was it that chose the programme for this concert?

I chose the programme as a good opportunity for us to air much of the music we will be recording for Somm Records immediately after the end of term.

How successful is Joubert in writing for choirs, what does he do particularly well?

Joubert writes very challenging music for choirs and much of the music we are singing is very rarely heard. This is partly because Joubert is comparatively unknown except for a couple of carols, notably ‘Torches’ which we are NOT recording! His music is very personal, very emotional, very engaging, rather dark and intense. There is not a lot of light relief, though in the Three Portraits, he does let his hair down a bit.

Director of Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer

What accompaniment will be used for these pieces, and how does that affect that the soundworld?

For this concert the only accompanied work is ‘South of the Line’ which is accompanied by two pianos, timpani and four percussion players. This, as you can imagine, creates a very individual sound world and each movement is slightly different with two movements being solos with piano only and one choral movement being only for percussion and voices. It is imaginative and powerful.

Joubert has a longstanding relationship with Birmingham, the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Conservatoire. What is the Chamber Choir’s relationship with him and his music? Have they performed much Joubert before?

We recorded a work I commissioned from John on our first chamber choir CD (To Music) which was written for my Finzi Singers: a setting of John Donne’s famous Hymne to God the Father. He attended the recording sessions as we hope he will do this time.

Composer, John Joubert

Will Joubert be at the concert?

Yes, he will be. He is now very frail as he turns 90 next year. But he has attended all our concerts featuring his music this year.

How important do you believe it is for young singers to sing in choirs?

It is one of the most important things they can do on many levels. Few of these young singers will go straight on to concert platforms and take starry roles for some time. Many good young singers take the route of singing in the wonderful professional choirs which we have in the UK. Singing at the professional level we do in the chamber choir here prepares them in the best way possible for this work. It is wonderful for their ears, for their sight-reading, for learning to mould their voices to a group dynamic and for the sprit de corps that comes with singing in a friendly and purposeful, high-achieving ensemble.

How important is it for you to work with choirs on a wide range of repertoire, from choral standards through to contemporary and perhaps experimental compositions?

Range of repertoire is important but we are severely hampered by lack of rehearsal time. It is amazing what is achieved in one weekly 2 hour rehearsal. So there is a practical side to choice of repertoire as well as being driven by what will work for our annual recording.

Previous recording of choral music by Herbert Howells

You are recording next month. Will that be all of the repertoire for this coming concert?

Yes, but we are doing more music on the disc than will be heard in the concert. There are some organ accompanied pieces, for instance, which we cannot do in the ABH.

The Chamber Choir’s CDs have been receiving rave reviews in recent years. What is it about the vocal department here which is producing such fine young choral singers?

The Birmingham Conservatoire has been on an upward trajectory for some years now and many excellent young singers choose to come to us over other places. It has a very good reputation. But the choir itself has a growing reputation which also helps the Vocal Department and the Conservatoire as a whole. We recently broadcast a concert on BBC Radio 3 for the first time which was repeated this week. The BBC Philharmonic approached me to ask for a collaboration (sadly not possible owing to date clashes) and the recordings we make achieve consistently fine reviews. We are always asked to give an annual concert in the Town Hall with City Organist Thomas Trotter. Compared with where this group was even a few years ago this exciting progress indeed.

Are there any exciting projects in the future with the Chamber Choir that you can tell us about?

No further projects at this time though a tour is what I would ideally like to achieve if funding could be found.

 

The concert begins at 7:30 in the Adrian Boult Hall, and tickets can be purchased here.

BPO, Di Xiao and LEAP Ensemble @ City of Sounds

On Saturday 11 June, the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) will take the to Adrian Boult Hall (ABH) stage for the final time. Conductor Michael Lloyd will lead the BPO in two piano concertos, the Mozart d minor (No. 20) and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, performed by Birmingham Conservatoire alumna, Di Xiao.

To make this concert even more special, they will be joined in the first half by the LEAP ensemble, consisting of talented young musicians from the Conservatoire’s Aspire programme performing orchestral favourites selected from the pioneering BBC Ten Pieces initiative.

The BPO on stage in the ABH

We caught up with  BPO clarinetist, Alastair Moseley to find out more about this concert and the BPO’s relationship with the Conservatoire and the ABH.

How excited are you all to be performing  with Di Xiao and the LEAP ensemble as part of the City of Sounds festival?

This will be the first time that the BPO has worked with Di Xiao, although our Music Director, Michael Lloyd, has long wanted the Orchestra to accompany her. This opportunity has arisen partly as Di Xiao has been offered performance opportunities with Valery Gergiev in 2017 and her performance on Saturday will be partly in preparation for this momentous occasion. The BPO has long been known for giving opportunities to up and coming musicians to develop their professional careers and we are delighted to be doing this now for Didi. We are also proud to be taking part in City of Sounds along side so many other inspirational groups including our dear friends, the CBSO.

The BPO and Birmingham Conservatoire have a longstanding relationship. When did it all start? 

The BPO has been associated with the Birmingham Conservatoire for many years, indeed going back to when it was the Birmingham School of Music. Our Concerto Prize, formerly the Ludlow Philharmonic Prize was founded jointly with the School of Music as long ago as 1983, and we have associations with the School going back well before that. However it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that we adopted the Conservatoire as our ‘home’. Before that we used a variety or rehearsal and performance venues including Schools, Churches and concert halls. Our move to the Conservatoire marked a step change in the quality of our performances, and we regularly gave at least five performances each year in the Adrian Boult Hall until we moved to Birmingham University in 2014 – a move driven primarily due to the need to secure our high quality base for the Orchestra while Conservatoire moved to its new location at Eastside.

How many years have you been performing on the ABH stage? 

I think that our first performance in the ABH was on Sunday 17th October 1993 in a programme including Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Nielsen’s Overture Maskerade and Mahler Symphony No 1. The soloist was Andrew Massey and the conductor was our then MD, Robin Page.

What is it about the ABH that is so special?

It has always been the ideal venue for us in many ways – not too big, comfortable to play in with good back stage facilities, and acoustically quite satisfying. Its central location has also always been a strong point for our audiences.

Michael Lloyd

BPO Conductor, Michael Lloyd

It must be almost unique among amateur orchestras in the UK to have such a close relationship with a conservatoire. Using soloists and conductors, rehearsal and performance spaces, providing a concerto competition. How special is this relationship for the BPO? 

The relationship that we have with the Conservatoire is indeed special and we see it as a key part of our activities to give performance opportunities to Conservatoire students. Virtually every BPO concert will have four or five students from the Conservatoire taking part – and many of our members are Music School/Conservatoire alumni. The jewel in the crown of this relationship is our Birmingham Philharmonic Concerto Prize the Final of which is of course now accompanied by the orchestra.

Are you excited about the new Conservatoire building, and will BPO continue their relationship with the Conservatoire there? 

We hope that when the Conservatoire moves to its new location that we will be able to strengthen our links still further through other collaborations along the lines of the concert on Saturday where we will be sharing the platform with the Aspire Students. We hope to be one of the first Orchestras to perform in the new concert hall there.

This concert sees the debut of the Conservatoire’s Aspire programme, conducted by Dan Watson, and culminating in a collaborative performance of Bernstein’s Mambo. How important is education for the BPO? What is it about these projects that inspires the BPO to do more of them, and what does the BPO get out of them?

As I have mentioned already, the BPO regularly features Conservatoire Students in its performances, and we would like to make this arrangement more formal in the future. This blend of amateur, semi-professional and aspiring professional players is what makes the BPO so successful. Our performances are often highly acclaimed in the press – witness our fantastic performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony in Symphony Hall in March – and so the quality of our playing is an ideal place for music students to learn their craft. They are after all our future if the current membership of the BPO is anything to go by! Long may it continue!!

The concert on Saturday 11 June starts at 7:30pm. Tickets are available from the THSH website.

You can read more about the BPO on their website and Di Xiao’s website can be found here.

CBSO & Michael Seal @ City of Sounds Festival

The CBSO will be making their final appearance at Birmingham Conservatoire on Saturday, 4 June at 7:30pm. They will be led by CBSO Associate Conductor and Conservatoire alumnus, Michael Seal, who will share the podium with Conservatoire Principal, Julian Lloyd Webber. CBSO principal cellist and Cello Tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire, Eduardo Vassallo, will perform Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, conducted by Julian, and Michael will conduct Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony.

The CBSO and the Conservatoire go back a long way, with the Adrian Boult Hall stage acting as the home for the orchestra, before they moved to CBSO Centre on Berkeley St. This concert is part of Birmingham Conservatoire’s City of Sounds Festival, and celebrates 25 years of the two organisations working together, as well as saying farewell to the ABH.

We caught up with Michael Seal to ask him about his memories of the ABH and how he came to work with the CBSO.

Can you give me a brief history of your connection with Birmingham Conservatoire and CBSO?

I was a student at the Conservatoire between 1988 and 1992. I applied for the very first CBSO Training Scheme in 1991, and was offered extra work as a consequence. I trailed for a job that summer and was offered a job in October 1991, starting my CBSO contract on September 7th 1992.

When did you first encounter the ABH?

I would have first entered the ABH during my Fresher’s week in 1988. I remember induction meetings and a few rehearsals from those early days quite well.

Whilst studying here what was it like to have CBSO and Simon Rattle in the same building?

It was amazing to have the CBSO and Rattle in the building. To see the players queueing for tea in their break would inspire some of us students. I also remember vividly sneaking in to the top of the ABH and hiding behind the chairs to listen to Henryk Szeryng playing the Elgar Violin Concerto with the CBSO & Simon. I daren’t make a sound as I didn’t want to be discovered but I desperately wanted to eavesdrop on this amazing rehearsal.

Did you rehearse in the ABH? How was it going from a student to a member of the CBSO and using the same rehearsal space?

My very first CBSO rehearsal as an extra player was in the ABH and I think it probably helped. I was 21 years old and frightened to death! But at least it was in a familiar place and this helped a little – even so, I still couldn’t get the bow to do what I wanted it to for at least 5 minutes!!

What is the most interesting thing you have conducted in the ABH?

I have conducted quite often in the ABH with both Conservatoire orchestras and the Birmingham Philharmonic. I shall never forget conducting Shostakovich Symphony No.7 in there with the BPO – the review said “there is no stereo yet built that can replicate the aural violence we experienced last night”! It was just about the loudest thing I have ever experienced on stage!!

What will be your lasting memory of the ABH?

Having done 2 weeks of freelance work with the CBSO in July 1991, I was in the ABH with a friend trying out violins during the summer break. We had the doors open and not long in to our session, the orchestra manager of the CBSO walked past. He stopped, walked in and asked if I was free for a patch of work with the CBSO in one month’s time – I was, and so said yes. It was two BBC Proms concerts with Simon and then a tour to Helsinki, Berlin and Paris. It was this trip that led to me getting a trial and eventually a job.

Book your tickets now to avoid disappointment.

BGSO Hall of Fame @ City of Sounds

On Sunday 12 June, as part of the #CityofSounds Festival, the Birmingham Gay Symphony Orchestra will be making their final visit to the Adrian Boult Hall. With an afternoon concert (3pm start) of classics from previous concerts and famous pieces which are new to the orchestra, they hope to thoroughly entertain their loyal audience, as well as celebrate their seven year history of performing at the Conservatoire.

BGSO and Chorus on stage at the Adrian Boult Hall at the end of their BGSO Pride Proms concert in 2015

The orchestra will perform orchestral classics such as Dvorak’s Largo from his New World Symphony and the second movement from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (performed by BGSO Principal Clarinetist, Philip Mills). In addition they will play the Hoedown from Copland’s ballet, Rodeo, and the thrilling Montagues and Capulets, by Prokofiev to really get the hearts pumping. Variety is the theme of the evening with something everyone will enjoy, whether they are in to their Brahms, Debussy Khachaturian, or even a spot of Jonathan Creek i.e. Saint-Saëns haunting Danse Macabre, with BGSO Leader, Kat Galbraith taking the main role.

 

BGSO Leader Kat Galbraith on stage at St. Paul’s, Jewellery Quarter

We caught up with Kat who is also the Chair of the BGSO to find out more about this special orchestra and their upcoming concert.

How/when/why was the orchestra formed?

The founding members of the BGSO (quite literally two violins, a flute, an oboe, a trumpet and a French horn) responded to an advert in Midland Zone in 2008, turning up to a cramped office space in the Custard Factory, where they played through musical theatre medley after musical theatre medley sitting on deckchairs using anything to hand as a music stand! Humble beginnings, but for the musicians involved it gave them a place to come together, play together and have fun together. People who hadn’t played their instrument in years sat next to music students and professional players. It was love at first blow, or pluck depending on your instrument!

The BGSO first performed publicly in 2008 in The Loft Lounge and The Village Inn, playing Christmas carols and raising money for ABPlus. Back then we comprised of approximately a dozen players. I joined in April 2009 when we were preparing to be part of the Pride Celebration concert, and perform at start of the Birmingham Pride parade. By this point we’d swelled to around 25 players marking the beginning of the BGSO as we know it today. By the end of that year we’d started rehearsing at the Conservatoire and were preparing to put on our first proper concert at the ABH.

BGSO Principal Clarinettist, Philip Mills on stage at St. Paul’s Church, Jewellery Quarter

What does it mean to be a LGBT orchestra?

The LGBT scene in Birmingham and the West Midlands is an immensely diverse community. We know this, but it isn’t always evident from the outside looking in. When people think of LGBT social scenes they tend to think of the bars and clubs, however not everyone who identifies as LGBT is into that kind of scene. It can be hard to find alternative ways to meet people with shared interests.

As an LGBT orchestra we are able to provide a safe ‘non-scene’ environment centred around a shared interest where people can come together to express who they are without any additional pressure or expectations. This is as important now as it ever was. Whilst the situation for people who identify as LGBT in the UK is infinitely better than it has been in the past, there is still some way to go. It is important for us to be visible as the Birmingham Gay Symphony Orchestra.

Our orchestra is fully inclusive and welcomes all musicians of any standard whether they identify as LGBT or not. We promote talent and musicianship directly from within the LGBT community illuminating the diversity that exists within it to the wider community and beyond. It makes us very proud to be one of only two LGBT orchestras in the country at the moment, and we hope that other cities can take inspiration and seek to support and promote their own LGBT community in this way. To quote one of our members, “every city should have one… like a cathedral”.

Birmingham has a thriving cultural scene, and one of the best LGBT scenes in the UK. Is there anywhere that these things come together?

Over the last seven years we’ve forged strong links with other organisations within the LGBT community, and strive to support their projects whenever and wherever we can. We have a fantastic cultural scene and we want people to know about it! We have been invited to play at key events in the LGBT calendar, such as the opening of Birmingham’s LGBT centre, Pride, Shout Festival, World Aids Day & L-Fest. We are particularly excited to be spearheading the launch of the Pride Arts Consortium later this year which aims to bring together LGBT Art groups from across the Midlands to strengthen and promote the fantastic work that we are all individually and together for Arts within our community.

BGSO members letting their hair down after their performance at L-Fest in 2015

How many times/how long have you been performing in the ABH?

Our first performance in the ABH was our ‘BGSO does Christmas’ concert on 13th December 2009. I don’t think any of us walking out on that stage that night could have anticipated that we would continue to perform there for the next seven years and would be one of the last orchestras to play there. It’s going to be emotional for many of us when we play there for the last time on the 12th of June.

What does it mean to play in a hall like the ABH?

It means everything! All of us in BGSO love playing together and that is a beautiful thing in and of itself; I have always felt that we would be driven to come together whether we put on formal concerts or not. However, there is something very special about walking out on the stage together at ABH. We love the hall for its warm acoustics and it is the greatest thrill to hear the sound we make together on concert night. It allows us to showcase the music talent that exists within the LGBT community in the West Midlands, and for an audience to gather at a great performance venue to hear us at our absolute best.

You are performing some terrific music. Why did you choose these pieces?

These are some of our favourite pieces many of which we’ve played in previous concerts in the ABH. It seemed fitting that we revisited these on our last ever concert there. I’m very lucky that we are playing two of my favourite pieces – Khachaturian’s ‘Adagio from Spartacus’ and my favourite piece of all time Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’. All the pieces mean something to each of us and we hope that will come across in our performance on the night.

Are you excited for the new building? Will you be performing concerts there?

We certainly hope so! We’ve seen the plans and are very excited by what the future holds for music making in the city – we want to be a part it!

The BGSO at St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter

What are your future concert plans?

On December 17th we return to St Pauls in the Jewellery Quarter for a Christmas concert. Our Christmas concerts are always a firm favourite with our audience – who doesn’t love a Christmas concert! This year we will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty alongside all the usual festive classics our audience members love. Going into 2017 we have concerts scheduled for 18th March & June 10th – keep an eye out for details on our website.

You can buy tickets for the BGSO concert on 12 June Birmingham-Box and follow the orchestra on Facebook and Twitter.

CBSO @ City of Sounds Festival

The relationship between the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Conservatoire is arguably closer any other between a music college and an orchestra in the UK. The two organisations are so linked together that the collaborations, the mentoring of staff to students and the  shared pride in celebrating Birmingham and the beyond attracts attention from around the world.

Birmingham Conservatoire support the CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall. Birmingham Conservatoire support the CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Seal support the CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

On Saturday, 4 June at 7:30pm, the CBSO will be making their final appearance on the Adrian Boult Hall stage as part of Birmingham Conservatoire’s City of Sounds Festival, celebrating 25 years of working together. They will be led by CBSO Associate Conductor and Conservatoire alumnus, Michael Seal, who will share the podium with Conservatoire Principal, Julian Lloyd Webber. Julian will lead Eduardo Vassallo, CBSO principal cellist and Cello Tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, and Michael will conduct Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony.

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CBSO Principal Cellist and Birmingham Conservatoire Cello Tutor, Eduardo Vassallo

The ABH was once the home of CBSO. Gone are the days when a bright-eyed undergraduate might end up in the queue behind Simon Rattle buying a cup of tea. But students still get to see a large number of CBSO musicians  wandering the corridors of the Conservatoire, teaching, leading sectionals, attending meetings, or perhaps themselves grabbing a cup of tea and bite to eat in the cafe. CBSO musicians are so entrenched in the daily life of the Conservatoire it is hard to distinguish where one organisation ends and the other begins. And with CBSO Centre and Symphony Hall only a few minutes down the road the opportunities for students to observe rehearsals and meet other musicians is a great way to learn and develop.

I caught up with Julian Lloyd Webber to talk about his debut with the CBSO as a conductor and asked him about his memories of the Haydn concerto…

Am I right in saying this is you first performance with them as conductor?

Yes it is!

But you have performed with them before as a soloist?

Yes – I go back a long way with the CBSO – I remember playing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the orchestra in 1973 in Kidderminster! One special memory is giving the first public performance of Frank Bridge’s wonderful Oration for Cello and Orchestra at the 1979 Bromsgrove Festival.

How special is it for you to conduct with Eduardo Vassallo as the soloist?

This is very special. Eduardo is a wonderful cellist and he is one of our most valued teachers – so this feels entirely natural.

Obviously this is a concerto you know very well, how might that make its way in to your conducting?

Hopefully I will know it inside out! More importantly the fact that I know it so well will enable me to respond to everything Eduardo wants.

Do you have any special memories of performing the Haydn yourself?

I played this concerto all over the world. I especially remember one performance in Tokyo with Yehudi Menuhin conducting. It was the first item on the programme and he refused to go on stage until his wife arrived – she was stuck in the Tokyo traffic. So I was getting ever more nervous – and we started the concert ONE HOUR late!

Tickets are still available from the THSH website, but are going fast. Get yours now to avoid disappointment.

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Stereo is King @ City of Sounds Festival

The percussion department is always busy doing something, whether it is putting on a concert for schools using everything you would find in the cupboard under the stairs to travelling to Brazil to train with one of the country’s top samba schools. June 20th sees them take part in the final week of the City of Sounds Festival performing classics by Cage and Reich alongside new works by Bates and Norman in what will be a rhythmic and sonic feast.

Birmingham Conservatoire percussion students and Sophie Hastings (Head of World Percussion) in Brazil

Birmingham Conservatoire percussion students and Sophie Hastings (Head of Drum Kit, Rhythm and World Percussion) in Brazil

The title, ‘Stereo is King’ is taken from the Mason Bates’ piece of the same name which will be performed alongside works by Steve Reich (‘Music for Pieces of Wood’), Cage (‘First Construction (in Metal)’), Chick Corea (‘Sicily’), Christopher Tyler Nickel (‘Firedance’) and Mark Norman (‘Longshore Drift’).

Bates’ composition is a collection of six pieces by the young American composer, most of which were written during a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With an overall emphasis on rhythm, his work can be described as distantly rooted in the minimalist tradition – fitting then to have the masters of that great school of composition, Cage and Reich in the same programme. Bates also includes electronics in two of the pieces, and also manages to evoke popular styles such as blues or funk, but carefully avoids falling in to the realms of “crossover” by developing his rhythmic ideas rather than allowing them to firm the structural basis of a piece. He also, in the title track, uses electronics within the acoustic ensemble to effectively evoke the ‘concertante’ style which was prevalent in Baroque music which all contributes towards his post-minimalist language.

Cage’s ‘First Construction (in Metal)’ was composed in 1939 and is written for six percussionists and an assistant (whose job it is to apply a metal rod to the strings of a piano). The percussionists use, among other things, Japanese and Balinese gongs, Chinese and Turkish cymbals, brake drums, anvils and a water gong (which is a gong placed in water whilst vibrating) and the set up is a spectacle to behold.

Set up for John Cage's 'First Construction (in Metal)' on stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Set up for John Cage’s ‘First Construction (in Metal)’ on stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Steve Reich is one of the world’s greatest living composers, this year celebrating his 80th Birthday. The percussion department performed his iconic masterpiece ‘Drumming’ back in December 2015 which was inspired by his studies in Ghana using the transcendent and dramatic tapestry of bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels and females voices, with an irremissible sense of momentum. ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ on the other hand uses a much simpler instrumentation, five pairs of tuned claves, and is a fine example of how only using basic elements can still produce something of great interest and impact. The composer describes the piece as “one of the loudest” he ever composed, but uses no sort of amplification whatsoever. With 58 kaleidoscopic shifts of pattern, the pieces consists of three sections, each one progressively building the density of the music based upon a simple quaver (quarter note) pulse laid down by the first player.

Tickets for ‘Stereo is King’ featuring the Percussive Sounds Ensemble of Birmingham Conservatoire’s percussion department are available from here. The concert is on 20 June at 7pm.

Keep up to date with the percussion department on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Music to Go with BCMG and Via Nova @ City of Sounds Festival

This Friday (20 May) sees Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) collaborate with Via Nova in a concert in the Adrian Boult Hall (ABH). BCMG, which was founded in 1987 and is now of the Europe’s leading contemporary music ensembles, used to be based at the Conservatoire and used the ABH as a rehearsal and performance venue. The ensemble consists of many musicians who teach at Birmingham Conservatoire, and also play with the CBSO. Via Nova is an exciting contemporary choir made up of students and graduates of the Conservatoire and led by the dynamic conductor, Daniel Galbreath. This concert sees BCMG and Via Nova unite to perform music by Charlotte Bray, Betsy Jones, Morton Feldman and Howard Skempton.

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Conductor, Daniel Galbreath rehearsing members of BCMG and Via Nova. Image credit: BCMG

Howard, Lecturer in Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, will have two works performed on Friday, including the BCMG commission, Six Figures, written for Ulrich Heinen, co-founder of BCMG. I asked Uli about the history of the piece and how it feels to have something written for you:

“In 1998 or so, BCMG and CBSO moved into the CBSO-Centre and I adored this new performance space. I decided I wanted to perform all of Bach’s cello suites in there, mixed with contemporary works for cello. I asked Howard if was willing to write me a piece and he did! I knew Howard from our collaboration on ‘Delicate’, a ballet scored for 2 cellos and percussion. Six Figures is very special! I kind of feel responsible for its well-being. It is not particularly daunting to have Howard there, either. He is so understanding and accommodating. I am used to his presence anyway. Last year we did about a dozen performances of Field Notes and he was there for all of them!”

Daniel Galbreath describes the concert as “centred, to a degree, on the work of our own Howard Skempton”. Via Nova will also be performing a work by Howard, called The Flight of Song, which he describes as “elegantly simple, yet powerfully expressive”. Similar to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel which is also on the programme, both pieces exhibit what Daniel says he loves about both composers’ work: “There’s clarity, such thoughtful, intuitive (but un-fussy) precision, that you don’t realise for a while that you’ve been led into what is also a powerfully emotional landscape”.

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Members of Via Nova in performance. Image Credit: Via Nova

I asked Daniel about his feelings of working on a piece written by a composer you know:

“It’s always great for the singers – and me – to perform works by composers we know, but it’s especially special to work with Howard. He’s acted as a mentor to me since I first moved to England, actually (I acutely remember a 2-hour long coffee at Starbucks when I first arrived, feeling very anxious and alone, talking mostly about Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich), so having his work as part of what is a tremendous opportunity for Via Nova means a great deal to me. We’re honoured to work with a composer of such standing, but also of such insight.”

One of BCMG’s greatest achievements is its reputation for commissioning and performing new music, and they work closely with the Conservatoire’s own Composition Department. As well as coaching players of the Conservatoire’s Thallein Ensemble, BCMG also run workshops for composition students and regularly read-through works of students, providing invaluable feedback. Uli spoke to me about how the students benefit from this close relationship:

“I think the composition students love the challenge to write for BCMG and seem to be pleased with our performance of their work. We love playing new works and as the standard of composing has become so high in recent years it is a pleasure for us to get to know them and their work!”

Uli also spoke to me about how the ensemble has “grown enormously” since it was founded in 1987. With around 75 works commissioned as part of their ‘Sound Investment’ scheme, the work of BCMG is now considered “world-class”. Uli says that with BCMG, the composer comes first. They have “free range of the instrumentation and other indicators”, and they will endeavour to keep the work within their repertoire, rather than putting the work back on the shelf, never to be heard again.

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Conductor, Daniel Galbreath rehearsaing members of BCMG and Via Nova. Image Credit: BCMG

Via Nova, the brainchild of Daniel Galbreath, who is a Conservatoire PhD candidate, and Ed Denham, a recent graduate, specialises in performing contemporary choral music, and often work with composers on new works and run workshops in writing for the voice – most recently as part of the conservatoire’s Frontiers Festival. Daniel spoke to me about how Via Nova was formed.

“Via Nova was founded several years ago for a several different projects, and gained momentum from there. We’ve been lucky to do some very exciting performances, including the UK premiere of Morton Feldman’s Swallows of Salangan, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. We’ve also worked a great deal with Conservatoire student composers, which I hope to continue doing.”

The two ensembles clearly have similar aims, working closely with composers to perform their work and providing guidance for student composers for example, but differ in their age and experience. Daniel, a graduate from the University of Wyoming, told me that BCMG are “not just great because of the skill of the players or the boldness of their programming, though – their engagement with the wider Birmingham musical community seems, to me, to be a central part of what makes them a relevant and extraordinary organisation.” “This event continues their tradition of engaging with, and supporting, Conservatoire musicians. Via Nova, though not a ‘student choir’, strictly speaking, is comprised of students/emerging professionals, and it’s exactly this sort of opportunity that gives them experience of the profession at the highest possible level.”

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BCMG co-founder and cellist, Ulrich Heinen. Image Credit: BCMG

The mentoring of BCMG has clearly rubbed off on Via Nova. The choir hope to “continue the kind of collaborations and community engagement that has been so important” to them thus far. They would also like to start recording and there is a big project in the pipeline to mark this year’s Shakespeare celebrations. “Our aspirations are nothing if not ambitious!” says Daniel, which is perhaps the best way to be.

Birmingham has a thriving cultural scene embracing music, dance, art and literature from around the world. Constantly delivering world-class and though-provoking performances and exhibitions by artists, groups and institutions such as Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Ikon gallery, the CBSO, Vanley Burke, Graham Vick (Birmingham Opera Company), The REP Theatre, Laura Mvula and The Custard Factory to name but a few. I asked Uli why BCMG is so important for composers from Birmingham and beyond:

“Composers need a group like ours who commissions and expertly performs their work to a very high standard. This is good for the UK as it is for Birmingham, because flourishing contemporary art is a vital indicator of a ‘healthy’ society.”

Come and hear BCMG and Via Nova in concert on Friday 20 May, 7:30pm in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire. Tickets available here.

Via Nova’s Website

BCMG’s Website